Kaegi, Steele debate effectiveness of Cook County assessor's office reforms

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi is touting a successful transition to greater fairness and transparency in his office during the three years since he succeeded Joe Berrios, but that very same work is being criticized as ineffective by his Democratic primary challenger Kari K. Steele.

Steele, the president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, says she wants to bring the management experience gained there to the assessor's office.

Kaegi said he ran for office to bring equity back to the property assessment system in Cook County.

"In study after study, it showed that the biggest buildings were desperately undervalued under my predecessor," Kaegi said. "Study after study showed that the magnitude of that was 40 to 50%. And the last three years have been all about closing that disparity on the biggest commercial properties."

The smaller commercial properties were, the more their assessments were in line with market value in the past, he added, and they were picking up the tax tab of the larger undervalued properties. The outcome of his reforms has passed muster with the International Association of Assessing Officers and a study by Crain's Chicago Business, Kaegi said.

But Steele had only strong criticism for the outcome of Kaegi's reform efforts.

"Well, unfortunately, what I see in the office right now is a lack of equity and fairness," Steele said. "Assessed values for properties are being submitted late. We are seeing late property tax bills. We are seeing that assessments are not fair and accurate and uniform across the board."

Steele added that she wants to be the kind of assessor that's known in every community and provides the trust that every taxpayer is paying his or her fair share.

"Right now decisions are being made that are hurting neighborhoods," she said. "Small businesses are being assessed at a 200% increase during COVID. They're the economic anchors of our communities. That's going to kill our communities if they have to shut their doors, and, if anything, is going to hurt jobs."

Kaegi defended his office's transparency in regard to how it arrives at its assessments.

"No other assessor's office in America does that, and that's such a long distance to have traveled from where we were before," Kaegi said. "And I've got to say, Commissioner Steele never made a peep about our property tax system before this. She was completely missing in action all those years when Berrios was doing this damage."

Kaegi added that Steele's citing of a 200% increase in a commercial property's value was not a representative example, and accused her of being funded by the county's biggest landlords who want the system returned to the way it was before.

Steele countered that the study Kaegi often cites as an endorsement of the effectiveness of his changes is based on inconclusive data.

"When you say I never made a peep about the property taxes before, I supported you the first time you ran for office and helped raise money for you," Steele told Kaegi. "And that's why I'm running now, because I'm so disappointed."

The winner of the June 28 primary will face Libertarian candidate Nico Tsatsoulis in the Nov. 8 general election.

Watch: Candidates for Cook County assessor meet with Daily Herald Editorial Board

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